Academic journal article Journal of Anthropology

New Data on Food Consumption in Pre-Hispanic Populations from Northwest Argentina (Ca. 1000-1550 A.D.): The Contribution of Carbon and Nitrogen Isotopic Composition of Human Bones

Academic journal article Journal of Anthropology

New Data on Food Consumption in Pre-Hispanic Populations from Northwest Argentina (Ca. 1000-1550 A.D.): The Contribution of Carbon and Nitrogen Isotopic Composition of Human Bones

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The analyses of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes were introduced to archaeology in the middle 1970s and have been used worldwide to assess human and animal diets of archaeological populations [1-5]. Their main potential is that they allow direct access to the average diet of an individual's life time before death which for bone samples is expected to reflect the last 7 to 10 years; while for hair samples, the value is expected to reflect a shorter time span [6, pages 137-138], complementing or broadening the interpretations made from traditional archaeological data, such as plant macro- and microremains, faunal remains, artifacts for food processing, or the osteological analysis of nutritional pathologies [7].

In the Andean area, the analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotopes have been used to assess the political implications of food consumption and distribution [8-10], the mobility and subsistence models of pre-Hispanic societies [11-13] or, the study of gendered food consumption in domestic contexts [14].

Following this line, we intend to approach the food consumption profiles of individuals from the archaeological sites of Tolomboon (Calchaqui Valley, Salta) and Esquina de Huajra (Quebrada de Humahuaca, Jujuy) located in NWA (Figure 1). The occupation of these sites encompasses a time span characterized by rapid social changes including a period of hostile conflict between communities and the annexation of the area to the Inca Empire, which probably affected these communities lifestyles--including which food was consumed. The Inca Empire (or Tawantinsuyu in Quechua) was acknowledged by considering maize as a staple, not only for daily consumption but also for chicha making, a traditional alcoholic beverage made from fermented maize which was consumed in feasts and celebrations [15-17]. Nevertheless, as recent isotopic studies demonstrate, maize was a staple in the Andes well before the Inca domination [18-21]but the increase of maize production seen in certain areas can be related to the empire's strategy of negotiation with local polities. In this regard, maize overproduction could have been used to support Tawantinsuyus populations, including the production of chicha for daily use and for sharing in festivities sponsored by the state [10].

What these studies suggest is that subsistence and diet were a complex matter that surely involved the interlocking of cultural predispositions on what was right to eat, the ecological settings, and the economic and political contexts that changed through time, especially as societies underwent rapid alterations in their social lives. In this regard, we intend to evaluate as many lines of evidence as possible to assess food consumption in two nuclear archaeological areas of NWA from ca. 1000 to 1550 A.D., including the results of recently performed analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of human bone. Although we recognize that the sample is small in relation to the time span considered, these are the first results for theses core areas of archaeological development in NWA. In addition, we will consider information from vegetable macro- and microremains, written records, isotopic analysis on human and animal bones, and isotopic composition of edible plants from the area, including those published by other scholars as well as those recently performed in the context of our research agenda. As Tykot [3] mentions, where the consumed food might have included C4 or CAM plants other than maize, as in our case, it is important to test archaeological faunal remains and other sources of information such as ethnohistoric records to interpret the isotope results.

The theoretical and methodological background for carbon and nitrogen isotope studies in ecology and archaeology in particular have been revised at length in previous literature [19-23]. For the purpose of the present study, it is worth noting that plants that form the basis of the trophic network take up carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in their tissue through photosynthesis, following three different metabolic ways: [C. …

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